When it comes to sustainability, the debate always shifts to the respective weights of money, people and environment. As we all know, these three areas are always tricky to reconcile. Here, I am going to give my views on why that is. In fact, it is not that difficult to understand. It comes down to the concept of externalities that I have addressed many times in previous posts. You can see the list of all these posts at this link I am really amazed how absent this term of externalities is from conversations about sustainability and about the future, because externalities are the very cornerstones that will determine our future. Talking about sustainability without mentioning and digging into externalities is purely and simply a useless exercise. Externalities being the long-term effects of human activities, it really raises the issue of the me/here/now vs. the others/somewhere else/later. This simple statement sums up the dilemma about both future and sustainability. In my opinion, not talking about externalities when addressing sustainability and future comes down to not taking the topic very seriously. Another area of discussion that I do not hear enough is the idea of closing the loops. Our materialistic consumption society based on always more has grown by opening the loops and ignoring externalities. To have a future we must close the loops again. The discrepancy between the me/here/now and the others/somewhere else/later is another expression of that.
To clarify, just have a look at the picture below. I compare Nature’s accounting with man-made financial accounting. I believe it makes everything much clearer. The way humans have organized their financial accounting is about having a snapshot of the financial situation of an organization or of an individual. Since it is a snapshot it is limited in time. We look at the financial situation over a defined period (week, month, quarter or year). As it is a snapshot, it is frozen at a particular moment. A few minutes later, another snapshot would show a different financial situation. Everyone who has had to do some accounting knows that. We allocate things in certain ways, most of which are arbitrary and dealt with just to make sure the snapshot looks good. It is just like having a portrait taken. Accounting makes sure that the subject is showing its best profile and under the nicest light possible. But because of this moment frozen in time, man-made financial accounting is of a linear nature, which also fits very well, or at least accommodates itself quite well with a system in which the loops have been broken open. Financial accounting, as its names tells, is about money and money only. The social and human balance-sheet does not appear in there, and neither does the impact on the environment. They are externalities. They are matters that are neither limited in time, nor linear and which are way beyond money only. Just imagine how things would look different if instead of our current currencies, we all shared one same currency, which would be CO2. Just think what it might do for the way we internalize the environmental externalities.
That is what Nature kind of does. Our little accountant bee from the picture could tell us more about that. Nature’s accounting is not based on a snapshot, it is an ongoing process. It is not a photograph, but it is a movie! And a very long one that has no beginning and no end. What can be more circular than that? And to be this circular is must have closed loops all interacting with each other. That is how Nature works. Humans, on the contrary, look at accounting of organizations as independent units from each other. The interactions are not factored in. There is no comprehensive accounting for the entire system, which makes each organization focus only on itself and leaves the others deal with their own. Human accounting limits co-responsibility and collaboration on our long-term impacts.
Instead of practicing creative accounting, Nature’s loops just constantly rebalance themselves. Nature works according to the most fundamental market liberalism there is. If something is out of balance, it readjusts itself. If that means that some populations see their numbers being decimated, so be it. That is the price of rebalancing life with resources. It is brutal but it is highly sustainable. Nature’s does not print money, does not maintain an imbalance for the sake of not affecting populations. Nature does not play musical chairs with its economy, as we do. For example, in financial accounting, there is always the game of improving the working capital for the closing date of the fiscal year, one part of this being to postpone payments to suppliers for just after the end of the fiscal year, but try to get the customers to pay their bills before the end of that fiscal year. That way, the working capital is lower and the numbers look better. That is the beautiful portrait snapshot approach I mentioned earlier. What we do with working capital, we do with externalities, too. We try to pass the inconvenient hot potato to others. In man-made economy, we also fight “natural’ market forces as much as we can. And even liberal capitalistic countries who champion free-market economy do this. Just see how much money has been printed pumped and into the economy after the subprime crash of 2007-2008. Just see how much money has been printed and pumped into the economy to deal with Covid-19, just to try to keep the economy (herewith I mean the GDP) afloat as much as possible. Just also look at all the subsidies of all sorts to keep systems running while they have no future, and the food and agriculture sector is no stranger to that. In our consumption society system, we have done nothing else than subsidize activities that produce negative externalities, and we can read “subsidizing” as actually “rewarding”. While Nature rebalances to function at the lowest energy level possible, we fight the rebalancing with the highest energy level possible. Should we really be surprised that this cannot go on?
Actually, human economy and its financial accounting do not work in parallel with its ecological counterpart. All the money we print to support our gigantic consumption levels is nothing but a loan that we take at Nature’s bank. All that printed money is used to use (well deplete and burn mostly) natural resources, while we have not earned that money, which is actually the right to use these resources. On top of that (literally), with broken-open loops, we pile up mountains of waste with the resources we deplete. Breaking the loops is not one problem, but it consists of two problems. One is running out of useful resources, the other is accumulating waste that kills us. We do this for the “me, here and now” and just like we play with working capital, we play the exact same game between generations. The generations that have benefited from this world of abundance are playing musical chairs with the following generations. The former do not want to factor the externalities in their lifestyle and just pass them on to their children and grand children. This is why, in terms of environmental impact, we are using resources much faster than we should. The problem is that Nature’s patience is not unlimited (here, read “resilience” for “patience”). It is a matter of time before Nature’s is going to ask us to pay the interest. The boomers won’t pay the interest. They leave it to their offspring. Nobody wants to take ownership of the externalities. It has become part of our culture. It is only fair for the young ones to push back now. They have started realizing that they are going to be left with the bill to pay, possibly in a system where Nature’s approach to economy will be stronger than the man-made system.
My purpose is not to depress you, although we all know that we are running out of time and climatic events certainly are cause for perplexity, to put it mildly. There are not many ways to rebalance our environmental impact. The most important is to reduce waste, which means reducing consumption volumes, From the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle), Reduce is not popular because it means lower GDP and our politicians and economists freak out at that thought. At least, reuse and recycle leave some hope for GDP. Even the word Recession is unbearable. It is now called the R-word instead. As a society leader, if you cannot say the word recession and accept that it happens once in a while, because recessions are good, they are like slimming down after the excesses of Thanksgiving and Christmas, to get back in better shape, you have no place as a leader. Actually, you are a liability to society.
We are seeing more and more attempts to internalize the externalities. Unfortunately, they are always referred as taxes, which is another word that nobody wants to hear. So much for the quote “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”. Perhaps, it is no wonder that we see an increase in incivility. To make our world sustainable, which means having a future, we cannot keep the same economics as now. Then, we must change the economics. We must change the way profit is built up. We must change the way we organize taxes. Money always talks and people will always welcome change if they make more money. Considering the amount of money printed, as I mentioned above, we clearly have the ability to put money at work to solve the challenges that we are facing. Yet, everybody seems to wish that when the Covid-19 problem is behind us we can revert to where it was before the virus hit us. Why on earth should we revert to a system we know leads to disaster? There was a great opportunity for our leaders to organize a shift of economics for before and after the pandemic, by putting money at work to create a healthier economy. No, most of that money has gone to the stock markets instead. We are missing an opportunity to change economics. We are missing an opportunity to reward good behaviour while penalizing damaging activities. Money talks and rewards are even more important than penalties to get acceptance for change. People always manage to dodge penalties and they do not cooperate. Opposite to that, people love rewards and cannot get enough of them. Not only do not they dodge rewards, they actively look for more. Here is a sadly underused potential: more rewards for good behaviour! As we can see, the solution lies in our behaviour and how we want to deal with adversity. This is quite important to underline. Technology alone will not deliver much if we do not want to change. Those who say otherwise are just salespeople trying to make some bucks. If we think that technology will do the work for us, while we do not make efforts to succeed, like spoiled lazy brats waiting for their parents to clean up their bedrooms, we just as well can cut the charade right now and accept the fact that Nature will go on but without us. The planet will be fine, no need to feel self-important by claiming to save it. What we need to save it humanity and life.
Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.